People are often self-righteous about their ignorance of a thing. SMH, means “shake my head,” means, “I’m so superior to this issue that I can’t even understand it.”
Many word snobs I know—and I know many word snobs, including one who I often glimpse as he’s brushing his teeth—have been SMH-ing at a particular linguistic habit, increasingly common over maybe the last 10 years or so.
It’s, “yeah, no.” And the slightly less common, “no, yeah.”
As in, someone tells you, “You’re always talking about Steph Curry, but I actually think Caitlin Clark is a better shooter.”
“Yeah, no, I get it,” you say.
Or someone says, “World B. Free was responsible for 60 points a game: Thirty on offense, and thirty on defense.”
And you say, “No, yeah, totally: Free played defense like a matador.”
This one reminds me a little of Calvin Trillin’s identification of the southern “positive negative,” where you ask a proprietor of a southern hotel if she has any aspirin behind the desk and she says in the warmest, most smiling and supportive tone, “We sure don’t.” Actually, it doesn’t remind me of that at all, I just wanted to get it in here.
But I think I finally figured out the linguistic purpose of the “yeah, no.” In the barbershop the other day. When my barber, a young woman, and the next barber over, another young woman, were laughing at the weirdness of the usage. (I’m such a language snob, even my barbers are amateur linguists.)
“Why do we say that?” the other barber asked, rhetorically.
“I don’t know!” my barber said, laughing.
And suddenly I thought I did know, after years of SMH.
“I think it’s to show you understand the whole range of thoughts on a controversial issue,” I volunteered. “You understand the situation all the way from ‘yeah,’ to ‘no.’ Or all the way from ‘no,’ to ‘yeah.'”
For instance, if someone said something inarguable, like “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 38,387 points,” you’d never answer, “yeah, no.” Because that’s a fact. But you would say, “yeah, no” in an argument about whether Kobe Bryant was a better player than Kareem, even though he scored fewer points.
“Yeah, no, I get that Kareem scored more. But I just think Kobe played against better defenses.”
“No, yeah, Kobe totally played against some of the great defenses of all time, but Kareem played against Wilt Chamberlain …”
“Yeah, no,” and “no, yeah”: They sound dumb, but they are civilizing terms, designed to acknowledge the point the other person is making and demonstrate that the point is legitimate—before explaining why you come down on the other side in the end.
It’s like the good old phrase we seldom hear anymore, I added, about issues on which “two good people can disagree …”
And my barber actually said, “Yeah, no—you do totally get it!”